Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dilemma of the rent-a-handler

Over the years, I have occasionally shown other people’s dogs for them in obedience. We jokingly call this being a “rent-a-handler.” This was in no way, shape or form the same thing as being a "professional handler." It was fun and I enjoyed it tremendously (seriously, who cares, it’s not my dog!) although if I had to count, I’d say my forays into the ring with other people’s dogs have met with more failures than successes.

Why? Because I did not have a real relationship with their dogs beyond a casual friendship and a handful of cookies. I liked their dogs. Their dogs liked me. These were dogs I’d trained with and traveled with for years. The fact that they happily went into a performance venue with me, after very limited practice together, and that we managed to look like we knew what we were doing speaks largely to the good training foundation these dogs had received. I had very little to do with it.

If I were to show someone else’s dog for them long term, with the intent of reaching specific goals, I’d have to put more into it than a few quick spins around the training building and tossing some cookies at them.

Training and showing is about building a relationship with your dog. The titles are by-products. If I took your dog right now and went out on the floor at the training building and he looked stunningly brilliant, it would probably be due to the novelty of working with someone new, not because we shared any mutual respect or trust or understanding of how the game is played together.

If I trained your dog consistently, over time we would develop that relationship . . . but the truth of the matter is, he is YOUR dog. Don’t sell yourself short when it comes to developing that bond that forms from year after year of discovery together - the good, the bad and the ugly, for better or worse, warts and all. It means so much more than ribbons.

While it seems to be quite en vogue in some regions of the country to hand your dog off to someone else to show, for the most part around here, the teams you see in the ring belong to one another.

I never asked anyone to show Jess for me. He was a freak about strangers. At my one and only experience with herding, the instructor insisted on taking Jess into the arena by herself. He spent the entire “lesson” trying to get away from her. When she finally conceded this was not working, he was such a stressed out mess I put him in the car and drove home.

I had a friend show Connor in rally at a trial when I had a ring conflict with Jamie in obedience. Jamie finished his OTCh. at that trial and Connor got his last RN leg so it all worked out. Connor was one of those dogs who would have gone in the ring with anyone. Sending Jamie in with a rent-a-handler, even one he knew, proved to be a bad idea as I discovered several years later when I asked a friend to take him in for Veterans group stays. That didn’t go well. Tracy and I are still friends in spite of it.

I asked a friend to show Phoenix in Open for me at a local trial last fall, when we were experiencing a lot of ring issues. It was an experiment more than anything else. I wanted to see if a different handler changed anything. I did not expect the simple action of sending him in with Michele to “fix” him and it didn’t. In fact, it went so badly she asked to be excused about half way through the run and the judge agreed. I hugged them both (Michele and Phoenix, not the judge) and never did it again. Since then, I have had Michele work Phoenix several times when we are training together and it’s gone very well.

Having someone else work your dog while  you watch really has a way of amplifying what’s good and what’s not - both in terms of what your dog values in your relationship and what he understands or doesn’t understand in the skill training.

If agility is your venue, it’s nice to have a dog who will run for someone else, especially if you get hurt after entries close and can’t hobble around the course. (As my friends and I age discreetly and gently this seems to happen more often.)Who wants to lose $100-plus for a weekend’s entry fees if a friend is willing to run your dog?

Like obedience, this meets with varying degrees of success, depending on the skill of the handler and the bidability of the dog to run for someone who is Not Mom. I would venture to say more dogs are willing to run agility with different handlers than do obedience with different handlers but I have no scientific evidence to back that up. I think Phoenix would be more amenable to doing agility with a rent-a-handler than he was doing obedience but I’d want to test this theory in training before trying it at a trial unless it was an emergency situation.

Bottom line - enjoy your ring time with your dog even if it doesn’t have the end result you were hoping for. It’s all part of the journey. Thanks to Phoenix, I’m learning to value that journey more and more.


  1. Very interesting read. In flyball, on most teams, learning to be handled by someone different is just another part of training. We so often own multiple dogs running during the same weekend, and often need those dogs to run on the same team. I've even sent one of my dogs to Canada to run for someone else. I think it is much more expected in flyball than in most sports, but it does take a certain amount of training for most dogs to run their best for someone else.

  2. LOL - the first thing that popped into my mind when I started reading this was Tracy and Jamie!

  3. I'm training my first stockdog. She's first generation from the ranch, I'm at least 3rd generation townie. She has more instinct than I do. I keep on telling her it would be better for both of us to have someone else work her (even in training), so we would both see what we're supposed to be doing. She refuses. Stands by the gate and cries until I return. This is a 3yo dog who loves working stock. Sigh. We'll learn more slowly, but we'll learn together. And then we'll unlearn some of the stuff we shouldn't have learned and put other stuff, I hope correct, in its place.

  4. Interesting. For me, performance is all about what my dogs and I do together. I am under few illusions about how much farther my dogs could have gone with another handler. On the other hand, since I work and train primarily for the bond between us, that would make having someone else compete with them a bit pointless. However, I do know a decent number of dogs who are used to running with other handlers, for various (usually physical!) reasons.

    At a trial a couple months ago I tried to give myself a concussion by sprinting face-first into a plexiglass wall in a soccer arena. Let's just say it made a LOUD sound and I now know what is is like for characters in a scifi movie who hit an invisible energy barrier. A kind friend volunteered to run my dog, when we were not certain if I had a concussion and my knees etc were quite sore. But I hated the thought that my dog was about to do his first excellent run without me. So I managed to rehab myself sufficiently to run Tip on his first excellent cours e... and Q! with a first place!!!

  5. Legend will run with "Daddy" and "Aunt" Cheri but Lyric is a momma's girl.